MINUSTAH: Should they stay or should they go?

Some six months after Michel Martelly was announced as the winner of Haiti’s presidential election, the country finally has a prime minister in the person of Dr Garry Conille, following his ratification by the Senate on Tuesday. But as the President and Prime Minister focus on putting a functional government in place to tackle Haiti’s formidable political, economic and social challenges, one of the most immediate issues appears to be the continued presence of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH).

MINUSTAH has been in Haiti since 2004, charged with restoring security and stability in the aftermath of the armed conflict that was threatening to engulf the whole country and the ouster of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. After the January 2010 earthquake, MINUSTAH’s presence in Haiti was augmented to help recovery and reconstruction efforts, with approximately 12,000 UN troops and police officers now in Haiti.

There have been mixed feelings about MINUSTAH ever since the beginning of the mission. Even though it has been credited with controlling violent crime to some extent and bringing a certain degree of political stability to the country, ensuring among other things that President René Préval was able to become the first elected Haitian president to serve out a full term (2006-2011), critics charge that MINUSTAH has failed to strengthen the Haitian National Police sufficiently to fight crime on its own and to help keep the country’s borders free from illegal trafficking. It is, moreover, regarded by many as an unnecessary and unwelcome military occupier, doing the work of neo-colonial powers, although it is formed by a majority of troops from Latin American countries.

Worse, two particularly unfortunate incidents have added to public pressure for MINUSTAH to go. The cholera epidemic that broke out last October was alleged to have been caused by Nepalese troops serving in MINUSTAH. And a video surfaced early last month showing Uruguayan soldiers appearing to be sexually assaulting an 18-year-old Haitian man. This latest incident triggered small but violent protests calling for all UN peacekeepers to leave and Haiti’s Senate passed a resolution on September 20 demanding their withdrawal.

Now, voices are being raised across the hemisphere calling on UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to put an end to what is being called “the military occupation of Haiti.” The famous Uruguayan writer, Eduardo Galeano, opines that the US$800 million spent annually on MINUSTAH could be better used for “technical cooperation” and “social solidarity” to help unleash Haiti’s “creative energy.” Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Washington-based Center for Economic and Policy Research, uses the shocking video to argue, “There is no legitimate reason for a military mission of the United Nations in Haiti. The country has no civil war, and is not the subject of a peace-keeping or post-conflict agreement. And the fact that UN troops are immune from prosecution or legal action in Haiti encourages abuses.”

But although President Martelly has condemned the rape of the young Haitian, he has also stated that “MINUSTAH should not be cornered,” as “Haiti needs the support of MINUSTAH right now… There is still instability.” In Mr Martelly’s opinion, “MINUSTAH can only leave when there is an alternative.” It seems, however, that this position has more to do with his controversial campaign promise to create a new Haitian army, as the country’s military was disbanded by President Aristide in 1994. And while Mr Martelly’s view that Haiti should once again be self-reliant is understandable, it is dubious that re-establishing an institution responsible for serial abuses in the past, at enormous cost – the start-up cost alone would be US$95 million – is the way forward. As with the argument regarding the cost of MINUSTAH, the money could be spent on more critical priorities, such as health and education.

Nevertheless, for the time being, MINUSTAH is, in the words of Mark Schneider, Senior Vice-President of the International Crisis Group, “still required to guarantee the peace.” In this respect, President Martelly and Mr Ban agreed during the UN General Assembly on a “drawdown” of MINUSTAH personnel. MINUSTAH’s mandate is expected to be renewed for another year by the Security Council on October 15 and the mission should return to its pre-earthquake complement of about 9,000. After that, it is anyone’s guess, but much will depend on what is done to strengthen Haiti’s police force and how determined the President is to press ahead with his plans for the army.

The most sensible approach would appear to be that advocated by Jorge Heine, an academic and former Chilean ambassador who co-edited the recently published Fixing Haiti: MINUSTAH and Beyond – “Any withdrawal has to be gradual, and be undertaken hand in hand with a suitable training of a sufficiently large and professionalized police force able to keep law and order in Haiti.”

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